Last week the cannabis legalising lobby, CLEAR, persuaded Keith Vaz MP, the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, to hold an inquiry into so called medicinal cannabis.

Such pressures on politicians go back a long way. In 1979, Keith Stroup, an American lawyer and founder of NORML (National Organisation for Reform of Marijuana Laws) told his Emory University audience, “We will use the medical marijuana argument as a red herring  on the road to full legalisation”.

His successor, Richie Cowan, at a 1993 conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the discovery of LSD said, “Medical marijuana is our strongest suit. It is our point of leverage which will move us towards the legalisation of marijuana for personal use”.

From the start this campaign has had more to do with self-interest than empathy for people who are ill.  As an emotional blackmail it has proved very successful. In the United States 21 States have now legalised use of ‘medical’ marihuana.

Except it is not medicine – for clear scientific reasons – and this is why.

To be licensed as medicines, substances have to be single pure chemicals so that their effects are predictable and controllable. Though pure heroin and cocaine fall into this category  cannabis does not.  It contains around 400 chemicals, rising to 2000 when it is smoked. Some are carcinogenic; the effects of others unknown.

Turning it into a medicine involves extracting single substances followed by purification and clinical testing on animals and humans – on the assumption the substance may have some therapeutic advantage – following scientifically established procedure.

The synthetic THC (tetrahydrocannabinol which is the psychoactive that gives the ‘high’) cannabis ingredient was licensed as a medicine – to counteract the nausea from chemotherapy and to stimulate appetite in AIDS patients – nearly 30 years ago. Licensed as Nabilone in the UK, Marinol and Dronabinol in the USA, these drugs are unpopular with doctors due to their side effects. The warning on Marinol states: THC causes mood changes, loss of memory, psychosis, impairment of coordination and perception, and complicates pregnancy.

Sativex, a mixture of THC and CBD (cannabidiol) purified extracts of the cannabis plant, has also been licensed for use, in Canada in 2005 and in the UK, 2010. Its effectiveness has been questioned; some Health Authorities have refused to sanction its provision.

But Bedrocan, a product legalising lobbies are pushing for, is simply a branded form of herbal cannabis – not a purified extract.  Taking it as a medicine would be the equivalent to eating mouldy bread to get penicillin; or for that matter, to chewing willow bark for aspirin.

The fact is that there is no scientific study establishing that marijuana is effective as a medicine. A large British study of multiple sclerosis funded by the Medical Research Council found it failed to slow progression in patients.

There is a further problem.  Anyone who advocates its use to get pain relief or, for example, to reduce the pressure in the eye caused by glaucoma, would need to take it every 3-4 hours, rendering them incapable of driving or indeed doing anything productive.

Although almost all marijuana cardholders in the States claim they need it for various kinds of pain, their pain is easy to fake and almost impossible to disprove. In Oregon and Colorado, where 94% of cardholders get their pot for pain, serious illnesses such as cancer barely register in their details.

In fact a recent study examining California’s average “medical” marijuana “patients” found he was a 32-year-old white male with a history of drug and alcohol abuse and no history of a life-threatening disease.* 

Mr. Vaz really should not waste parliament’s time with this abuse of the notion of medicine. He needs to see it for what it is. A ploy.


* O’Connell, T and Bou-Matar, C.B. (2007). Long term cannabis users seeking medical cannabis in California (2001–2007): demographics, social characteristics, patterns of cannabis and other drug use of 4117 applicants. Harm Reduction Journal, http://www.harmreductionjournal.com/content/4/1/16
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